Notes from the Basement – 12 January 2021

  12 Jan '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn
New year, same as the old year? When we wrapped 2020, exhausted but proud, we didn’t expect to begin 2021 in another strict lockdown. Nevertheless (as one of our authors was wont to say), let’s not lose sight of the promise 2021 holds. That promise takes the shape of a vaccine and with it the return to something closer to normality – perhaps with a new and lasting appreciation for what we hold dear in all aspects of life. 

So, join Birlinn in looking resolutely forward. Our programme of publishing for 2021 is full of remarkable books that will take you all over the world, propel you back and forward in time, bring you close to fascinating people or offer an escape hatch for when it’s all too much. Our January newsletters will feature spotlight previews of what’s to come.

Today, it’s literary fiction and poetry treats from Polygon:

  • January 1st saw the expiration of the copyright of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984, if you prefer) – first published in June 1949. To mark the occasion, we have two new books: the UK edition of Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe, an internationally bestselling novelisation of Orwell’s life from 1936 to his death in 1950. Alongside, we have 1984: The Jura Edition introduced by Alex Massie, who teases out the myths of the connections between work, writer, and place. Alex will be speaking to BBC Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show about 1984 from Jura this Thursday. Tune in.
  • This year brings two major literary anniversaries: the centenary ofGeorge Mackay Brown, who was born in Orkney on 17th October 1921. In late Spring we will publish three new books in his honour: Carve the Runes is a new selection of verse edited by Kathleen Jamie; Simple Fire, a new selection of short stories edited by Malachy Tallack; and the third is a new edition of his great classic An Orkney Tapestry.
  • There’s a case to be made for Walter Scott’s 250th on August 15th as the biggest of all Scottish literary anniversaries. The Royal Mint is issuing a set of coins and we will be reissuing Stuart Kelly’s wonderful Scott-land: The Man who Invented a Nation in June. A Radio 4 Book of the Week, it’s packed with brilliant readings of Scott’s works and a clear-eyed appraisal of his enduring influence.
  • Sticking with literary biography, we are thrilled to have the TLS’s James Campbell (J.C.) joining our list. His authoritative biography of James Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, is out in a new edition in February, and his own memoir Just Go down to the Road follows in July. The latter is a story of ‘trouble and travel’, a literary ‘Life’ that begins with a charge of shoplifting (books, of course) and freewheels on through travels in Asia and North Africa, and finds him forming a musical duo with Peter Green on a kibbutz.
  • In new fiction, Helen McClory’s novel Bitterhallis coming in April. It’s a thoroughly modern story of obsession revolving round the stolen diary of a nineteenth-century gentleman who may not be entirely dead. As the diary circulates within a group of friends, currents of desire and longing shatter their sense of themselves. It’s a testament to the power of books and narratives. Helen’s short fiction has won praise from Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith, the latter calls her ‘a writer completely unafraid’. We are fans and we hope you will be too.
  • Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover, a multi-generational novel of life on the land in the Cairngorm mountains, comes in May. Shepherd Colvin Munro disappears leaving a deliberate trail of his possessions leading into the mountains. Seeking to understand his disappearance, his foster-sister and prodigal brother uncover a trove of secrets in the local community. Spanning a century, it’s a powerful tale from Nan Shepherd-country about faith, ecology, retribution, and how people are bound to their land and to each other.
  • In September, we have one of Scottish history’s bloodiest murders told by one of Scotland’s most provocative modern writers. Multi-award-winning Denise Mina brings us Rizzio, a radical retelling of one of the darkest episodes in Scottish and European history. David Rizzio, private secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered on the evening of 9 March 1566. Dragged from the bed-chamber of the heavily pregnant Queen, Rizzio was stabbed 56 times by an 80-strong party of assassins. You will read this in one sitting. The power and pace of the writing won’t allow you to do anything else.

Friday 15th sees three years since the collapse of construction giant Carillion. Bob Wylie’s Bandit Capitalism: Carillion and the Corruption of the British State, a Financial Times Book of the Year, exposes the lawlessness of contemporary capitalism facilitated by hapless politicians. Have any lessons been learned? Has anyone been held to account? Burning with anger, it contains a warning for the future that must be heeded. Read what the GMB have to say.

Edinburgh lost a titan of its cultural scene over the Christmas period. Jan Rutherford, Deputy MD, shares this tribute to Jim Haynes: Was THAT After Eight ad really 2009? Can it be that long ago? My first encounter with Jim Haynes was in the 1980s, working at Canongate where we published his travel books. My last was with his customary hug and kiss, in the Yurt at the Edinburgh Book Festival – not long after his release from hospital after a heart attack at the station. A dear friend to all in books, theatre – in fact all in culture, counterculture and the arts in Scotland and well beyond – he died this week. We will miss him. Hugely. You can read two really lovely tributes in Bella Caledonia and the National.

This wonderful round-up of recent poetry books was compiled for Christmas, but it has much to say about the power of poetry to lift and sustain the spirits. It includes Alexander McCall Smith’s In a Time of Distance, a poetry collection that feels just like being in a reading group. 

 Stay safe, stay spirited. With the very best new-year wishes,

Team Birlinn

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